19 Pages

Blackface Minstrelsy, Vernacular Comics, and the Politics of Slavery in the North

WithAlexander Saxton

Blackface minstrelsy stands out as a landmark in American cultural history. Certainly it became the most widely-viewed, long-lasting, and probably most popular entertainment form of the nineteenth century. The popularity of minstrel shows rested on musical elements that were new and powerfully attractive to white audiences, that is, on rhythm and dance that had been brought from Africa. African Americans in the nineteenth century were almost totally excluded from public performance for white audiences. Vernacular comics played a central role in the class conflicts that were restructuring American society. There were lower and upper classes in America after the Revolution. Blackface minstrels, hanging close to the democratic line, continued their defense of plantation slavery till the outbreak of Civil War and beyond. Free Soil thus turned Jacksonian racial ideology against the slave plantation system. Precisely the success democrats had previously enjoyed in using white racism to romanticize and justify African slavery now boomeranged against the South.